PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
June 19, 2007

Carrie Newcomer: Polite Firebrand

by Jim Newsom

Carrie Newcomer may be coming to town for the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music, but she is the rockingest folkie around.

“Thank you,” she laughed when she called from her home near Bloomington, Indiana, a couple of weeks ago. “I’ll take that as a compliment.

“I cross genres a lot. But I think what usually puts me in the folk category is subject matter; I decided a long time ago I wouldn’t censor my subject matter. I write about romantic relationships, which could put me in the pop realm, but I also write about family relationships and political relationships and spiritual relationships. So, I think it’s that openness to what I’m willing to talk about that puts me in that folksinger category.”

Newcomer performs Saturday night at the Virginia Beach Central Library, bringing with her a songbook full of intriguing characters. There is an honesty in her lyrics that speaks volumes about life as it is really lived. She quoted her friend, pastor and author Philip Gulley, saying “these stories may not be real but they’re true.

“And that’s how I approach songs that are coming out of characters. There are people that some of these characters are based on. There’s a song called ‘Alice and Roy,’ it’s an older couple in the diner; they’re in their 90s and he still thinks she’s the bee’s knees and she still loves him and is very proud of him. They’re based on a couple in my Quaker meeting, but it’s not them, it’s not their story. But it’s based on watching them sit in the back of the Quaker meeting and hold hands. Some of the characters carry some of my experiences and tell my stories as well as their own.

“We hear so much of the Disney-fied stuff out there that when someone makes an honest and authentic statement, there’s a kind of power behind it. You only get so many crayons in your crayon box to work with in certain genres, and that’s something I’ve appreciated about the folk genre—my box of creative crayons is larger.”

She first began playing with her creative crayons growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, a small city near the Michigan border that used to be “the musical instrument capital of the world.”

“That’s right!” she exclaimed. “You know that! When I was growing up, most of the band instruments were made in Elkhart. All of the factories were there—Selmer, Conn, Armstrong. I think that’s part of why I am a musician. I didn’t really come out of a musical family but because all of the instrument factories were in this little town, the public school music program was pretty fabulous. Everybody’s parents worked in the music factories! So I encountered music through that avenue, being in a public school system with a great music program. And that’s where I started playing.

“I started with flute when I was eight. By the time I was a teenager, I really fell in love with the singing poets, the Joni Mitchells and the Bob Dylans, the folks who were doing that songwriting/storytelling combination of poetry and music. I picked up a guitar and started writing songs at that point, so that ended my band career.”

Newcomer is an artist in many media, writing poetry, prose and essays. And her degree from Purdue University is in Visual Arts.

“I was on the ‘how many colleges can you go to and lose credits transferring’ program,” she said with a laugh. “My last year of college was at Purdue, so that’s where my degree is from—in Visual Arts. And then I went back and got an education degree so I could teach Visual Arts.

“I taught private lessons and things like that, and I keep my fingers in visual arts. I tell people that my favorite game when I was a kid was called ‘making something.’ I’m happiest when I’m ‘making something,’ when I’m painting or drawing or making poems or songs. That’s what I do.

“I think at the time I was in college, I wasn’t ready yet to risk what I loved the most because, gosh, if it didn’t work out it would actually mean something. But I got through college playing in coffeehouses and bars and bowling alleys and after I finished college, music was really calling. I didn’t know where it was going to take me—I was a songwriter from the middle of Indiana! But I knew that I had this thing that I loved that I had to follow. And I’m still following it.”

She’s done very well in the folk music world following that “thing.” Her ten albums over the last sixteen years have shown a continuing songwriting growth and maturity, gathering a legion of fans and admirers. Her voice contains all the unadorned plain-spoken straightforwardness of her native Midwest.

“I think something really good and solid happened to my songwriting,” she said, “when I became really comfortable with the fact that I have a Midwestern voice; there’s a certain sensibility and earthiness that comes out of this part of the country. I think there’s a little anthropologist in most songwriters—places are so fascinating. We’re not homogeneous. We come out of a context. I think there’s a voice that comes out of the Midwest.

“A friend of mine who’s an author says, ‘Y’all out in the Midwest are polite firebrands.’ I love that! Sometimes we’re saying things that have a certain kind of depth and passion, but we’re nice Midwesterners. We might be saying something really radical when you get right down to it, but it’s a little matter-of-fact.”

Carrie Newcomer has a great folksinger name. (“It’s the real thing,” she said, “Do you think I’d pick a name that you can pun with either name?!?”) She has lent that name and voice to causes and concerns that she cares about, putting her money where her beliefs are.

“There’s an old Quaker saying,” she explained. “‘Let your life speak.’ It’s really easy to say but difficult to actually do. Who you are and what you value and what you love is evident in how you walk around in the world. I love that attitude. I don’t always get there, but I do aspire to it.

“I think our best and most potent activism comes out of what we love. I love music and I love people, so I try to incorporate that into making the world a better place. I decided a long time ago that when I tour around, a portion of my album sales would go to a particular organization for each tour. I feel very fortunate that I get to do this thing that I love so much, hopefully sharing a little bit of that. It keeps my hope alive.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.